Nothing wrong with a glass of good wine, but Mort took oenology blab way too far. His pronouncements about the cork that had kept the 1967 Haut Graves from sloshing onto the floor of the broom-closet he'd turned into a wine-cellar made me want to plug his nose with it.
The reason I kept accepting Mort's dinner invitations was his girlfriend. Hedwig was a phenomenal cook, but she never harped on the grub she dished up. Mort took care of that detail. He only shut up to chew. Even then, he made a display of considered mastication, to let everyone know he enjoyed — appreciated — the chow more than they did, more than they could.
Hedwig's herb-crusted venison tenderloin meatloaf struck me senseless. Her stove-magic turned me into a taste-bud organism, unable to watch Mort fletcherize each morsel, deaf to his discourse on how the wretched animal we were eating was shot, hung or lethally injected. Hedwig might've performed surgical demi-glace implants in Phase Two of the braise, but she'd never bore anyone with such technical chatter. She'd giggle like she'd been caught hiding Easter eggs whenever I said, "Good stuff, 'Wig."
Her vegetables were poetic series, light on the grease and salt. An artichoke heart that'd followed asparagus and green beans out of her yellow enamel Dutch oven made me want Hedwig the way some guys want a Jaguar XJS.
Mort was moved to lecture on mushrooms. Hedwig had made a chanterelle omelette appetizer, porcini-and-ramp risotto and a tree-ear Wiener Schnitzel that would've brought Wolfman Amadeus Mozart howling from the Potter's Field.
The fungi she'd scored at a Farmer's Market in Jersey didn't sit well with Mort: too pedestrian. He proposed a mycological expedition Upstate.
Mycologists are people who know which mushrooms'll kill you, which ones are good to eat, and which ones'll send you on a journey to self-realization. Mort claimed to be a mycologist.
Hedwig would never say no you're not honey in front of her old man's friends.
Though I'm the type who says, let's see a diploma first, especially if dental work or broken bones are involved, I kept my mouth shut. A stroll through woods where Mort might wander off and get lost sounded great. Maybe Hedwig and I would find his twisted corpse at the bottom of a cliff, after he taste-tested Floating Death toadstools.
This vision was dispelled when Hedwig presented dessert: mushroom-shaped, cocoa-dusted meringues filled with home-made vanilla ice cream and dark-chocolate splinters.
"Sure, let's go," I said. "Mushroom hunting's karma-free. I'll bring some Nepali bud." Then I tucked into Hedwig's creamy confection and fell even more deeply in love. Hedwig was a hopeless pothead. I deal weed for a living. I do OK.
Mort worked at a liquor store. He brought about the joint's semantic transformation when, after a tragic incident, he became its manager.
Masked gunmen robbed Barney's Liquor Barn late one summer afternoon, as Abie the soon-to-be former manager was adding up a fat Saturday's take. Unusually hot weather had caused a rush on near-frozen beer and white wine for consumption in the nearby park. Mort was counting on a cash bonus to make the final payment on a set of professional kitchen knives for Hedwig. Pump-action shotgun sound-effects popped his haute cuisine reverie.
"Fork it over, suckers, and maybe we won't shoot your ass."
Abie kvetched, but he didn't consider company money worth risking anyone's life over. Barney's Liquor Barn was a link on a commercial chain controlled by a holding conglomerate with offices in Syosset.
Mort, however, was incensed. He lunged for the nearest masked gunman, wrestled the guy for his sawed-off shotgun. The piece was loaded. It went off next to Mort's left ear, leaving him permanently deaf on that side, and leaving Abie the friendly neighborhood Thunderbird dealer dead as a smoked bluefish.
Mort told the cops that the robbers entered the premises with murder written all over their masked faces, so he felt he had no choice. He looked good in tabloid Page One pictures. The city decided he was a hero.
Mort got promoted, over Abie's dead body.
He upgraded, re-baptized. Barney's Liquor Barn became West End Wines. Local vintages such as King Kong and Crazy Horse were replaced by Sancerre, Merlot, Sauvignon, Beaune. Mort had learned some high school French at P.S. 71. Haut Graves became hot graves, in his mouth.
Before long, the Greek-owned grease-pit on the corner became Le Steak Frites.
The Doppler Shift in tone cut both ways. A familiar neighborhood mutated. On the plus side, the marijuana clientele grew less threatening. They paid cash, with no discounts asked or partial-barter contingencies offered, not that there's anything the matter with a piece of ass for half a brick of green weed. The new breed of urban potheads didn't pull guns when Alaskan Thunderfoot skyrocketed to $200 the quarter-ounce.
Districts change, business improves, people start to drone about topnotes of wet wool, peat moss, grapefruit, mangosteens. Cozy XXX theaters and congenial topless bars vanish. Cities go up and down, it's normal. But they're never going to rebuild Pennsylvania Station the way it was.
Business District improvements meant Mort and Hedwig could rent cars and splurge on motels — make that, Bed & Breakfast Inns — on weekends. They invited friends along with lordly nonchalance, but took gas money.
We headed north, to a place near Austerlitz. Early fall was the prime season, Mort said, for the burgeoning. Sounded like he'd been hired to do horror movie voice-overs.
Hedwig and Mort wore mail-order country clothes. My dead-leaf camouflage jacket was something extra a hippie record shop-owner had tossed in on a tunes-for-tokes deal. A hand-forged flaying knife, re-baptized a 'shrooming tool for the occasion, hung from my genuine Navajo concho belt in a hand-tooled sheath. The weed biz had once supported a flourishing barter economy.
Mort was an aggressive driver. Hedwig kept her shotgun seat window open, and drove me nuts with her perfume. Maybe she just naturally smelled that way. I usually experienced her in fogs of guinea-fowl stock with sweet-pea reduction and fig confit, or clouds of Central Texas skunkweed.
The rental car's stereo blared a classical set, heavy on the Schubert. Mort smacked his thigh off-tempo, otherwise the trip Upstate was a dream.
We pulled over at a pastoral spot. Harmless mushroom-shaped clouds loomed over the Catskills. Cows grazed, punctuated by horses and goats. Oaks, elms, aspens, hemlocks, horse chestnuts and copper beeches bloomed like napalm fireworks.
"We should've gotten here earlier," Mort said, eyeballing several beat-up pickup trucks parked roadside. "Yokels have probably denuded the turf in a cross-grid campaign."
He said we should split up. He wanted to keep his druidical burgeoning-places top-secret. "You two go that-a-way," he said, and pointed vaguely north-east. "Might be able to pick up a few easy ones, like porcinis or puffballs."
Hedwig and I tromped off into the woods. We stomped nettles and wild garlic, scared the squirrels.
"There's a lake about three miles in, towards the hills," she said. "Might not be too cold for a swim."
We trespassed on an abandoned farmhouse along the way. A foxed 1954 nudie-girl calendar hung from a rusted nail in a sunlit corner of the former kitchen.
"Hey, that's the year I was born," Hedwig said, and put her index finger on a mid-May square. "Whuddya think it means?"
"Means I'm happy to be here now, with you. Wanna get high?"
"Later. Come on, there's something I wanna show you."
Cowflops in the meadow outside the ramshackle barn were spotted with blowfly-holes, pimpled with white mushroom caplets. I plucked a few. "Uhhhh, better let Mort have a look before we drop any of those," she said.
What Hedwig wanted to show me was on a rolling hillside not far away: a blueberry patch the size of a city. "All one plant," she said. "Largest living organisms in the world. It'd take a whole team of blue whales to fill the same space."
We foraged like bears, stuffed our faces, stained our mouths, filled our pockets with free food.
The lake was a blue dream.
Saw-beak loons, non-decoy ducks painted by the breath of life, and black chickens with white hindoo-dots on their foreheads floated among duckweed, waterlilies and cattails, worlds away from pigeons with stumped feet, feather-thinning diseases and killer-idiot looks in their eyes.
I wanted to run, take a nude cannonball leap and scare the pretty waterbirds away, but then I watched Hedwig undress in early-afternoon sunlight and was struck quiet as the forest. She set down her clothes as though she were a guest in someone's house. Her hair fell in amber waves, with gray streaks, to halfway down her ribcage. Eve must've looked the same to her old man, the last time he saw her in their garden home. Adam must've sensed something off and kind of sad about the scene, but he wouldn't have been able to say why, yet.
We went into the water like we were just another territorially appropriate species, not invaders who destroy forests to put up amusement parks and parking lots.
'Get face-front with her,' I thought. 'Tread water and go in for a kiss. Maybe she won't scream.'
I've never had a steady girlfriend, never asked a lady to move in with me. Mort, who was off scrounging for truffles, had once looked Hedwig in the eye and said, let's give life together a try.
She looked around at the willows, reeds, poplars. I looked at her.
An oily cormorant flapped across the lake's surface and headed east for the sea, where he belonged. Hedwig came about as she watched his ungainly takeoff. She shot me a frank look that said, the moment is now. What the future turns into depends on you. Make your move, and take the consequences.
"Mort'll sure be pissed if we come back without any hedgehog mushrooms," I said.
Hedwig's eyes flashed mysteriously. "Come on," she said. "There's something else I wanna show you."
She went ashore with a stroke that spoke of swim camp, High School girls' varsity water-ballet, and a drawerful of fake-gold medals in some suburban homestead, if her folks were still alive and the house she grew up in still stood. She emerged onto the shore without getting covered in sludge. I watched her dry off. Light formed a wall between us as she slipped back into her rich-hippie clothes. I got dressed too, and put on my mirrored sunglasses so she wouldn't see me cry.
She headed back into the woods. I almost asked her to slow down, but didn't want to sound like a citified stoner who was afraid of getting lost.
We came to another clearing. Hedwig stopped. "This is where I grew up," she said.
"What, right here? You mean, Austerlitz."
"I mean right here." She took a step to the right, bent over, gently wrenched something from the ground and came up with a fat stone-colored boletus. Biggest dang porcini I ever saw, even though the only other ones I'd seen were stuffed in plastic sacks on racks at the Momma and Poppa Shop down in Little Italy where I used to get fresh-roasted coffee, until a rapid-burgeoning Dean & DeLuca supermarket devoured the whole block.
Hedwig grabbed another steak-sized mushroom from under a Manganese-flare aspen. We were in a meadow of edible rot. All you can eat. All you can carry, that is. Mushrooms taste fine raw, but they're even better with a spritz of lemon juice, a drizzle of premier cru California olive oil, a lashing of fresh-cracked pepper, fleur-de-sel, and a sprig of wild thyme.
She picked up a lichen-encrusted skull. The thing's black eye-sockets stared. When I looked away, other human bones sprouted up through the underbrush, some with textile fragments attached.
"Farmer McDonald said he'd let me ride his horse if I came for a walk with him. He wanted to rape me, but he didn't know I had a knife."
'Shit,' I thought. 'You sure you don't have one now?' But I said, "And you never told anyone?"
"What do you think?"
'Shit,' I thought. 'I don't know what to think.' Maybe some stoned teen hippie chick had lured an unsuspecting redneck into the forest. The deal was to exchange pussy for weed money, then she pulls out her father's hunting knife and it's, "Die, pig, die." Dried blood and rotting flesh ooze into the earth, and become mushroom compost. But I said, "Well the old creep must've gotten what he deserved. We should get back to the car. Wonder if Mort found any truffles."
She seemed disappointed. She tossed the skull towards the trees like it was a dried horse-turd.
She led the way out of the woods. I followed, but not too close.
Mort hadn't found any truffles. Maybe there were none to be found in that region. Maybe truffles weren't really what he was looking for.
We stopped at a roadside farm on the way back to the city. The hand-painted roadside sign said: "Venusin! Only $3.99 a lb!"
"Well-hung n' ready to eat," the fatso farmer said, and winked at Hedwig.
Home-butchery machetes hung from hooks in his garage meat market. He'd turned a trailer undercarriage into a carcass-hoist. Dried blood and congealed grease were spattered on the floor.
We didn't talk much after this bucolic shopping spree. New lights shone bright on the George Washington Bridge's fresh paint job when we crossed. The river flowed dark as always. Mort griped when he spotted Grand Opening signs for a deluxe wine shop scant blocks from his place of business. A homely hardware store had closed to make room for yet another gourmet supermarket.
Hedwig made venison stew, with a bottle of good burgundy in the sauce, accompanied by a meaningful mushroom casserole soufflé. Mort poo-poohed the white caplets I pulled from my jacket pocket. "Obviously not psilocybin," he said. "Edible, but flavorless."
Hedwig's boletus bonanza, however, was beyond dispute.
She shot me furtive looks while we ate. Maybe she wanted me to bring up the alleged rapist farmer's skeleton. Anything to put a sock in Mort's mouth as he went on and on about the history of wine-sauce cuisine — cue-zeen, he called it — and traditional truffle-hunting techniques that involved pigs, mutts and spinsters.
Dessert was wild blueberries, and hand-cranked ice cream flavored with black dried banana-shaped beans from Madagascar, where wide-eyed lemurs stared through the night from the boughs of baobabs and banyans.
Hedwig made the leap. She turned pro, and opened her own restaurant. Chez Edvige was an overnight success. High rollers have to call months in advance to reserve a good table.
Mort wears dark suits, flits ghostly in his guise as the joint's sommelier. He gets seriously pissed if anyone snaps their fingers at him and says, "Hey, waiter!"
Hardly anyone ever does that anymore. Almost everyone seems to know what sommeliers do, and are unfazed that it's possible to earn a living that way.
Porcini are often on the menu, as are chanterelles, morels, and scuttling lobster mushrooms, when they're seasonally available. But the last time I showed up to dine Chez Edvige, she looked kinda pregnant and it sorta spoiled my appetite, so I won't be going back.